Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Ninth Grade
Civil War, History, Military and Wartime History, Slavery, Social Studies
35 – 40 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)
Causes of the Civil War, Civil War, John Brown, harpers ferry, Slavery, Abolitionists


John Brown had a burning desire to destroy the evil institution of slavery; this drove him to organize the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, site of the U.S. Musket Factory.  Although Brown’s raid didn’t “succeed,” it helped propel our country into war, a conflict which would eventually bring about the end of slavery.    What happened during the raid?  Why was the South so frightened by this event?  What effect did the raid, Brown’s words during his trial, and his execution have on our country?


Objectives:  What was the goal of John Brown’s Raid in October 1859? Was this a realistic objective? Why or why not? Who were the raiders? What happened during the raid? In your opinion, was it “successful”? Why or why not? Would you have joined John Brown’s raiders had you been asked? Why or why not?

Critical Content: To understand what John Brown had in mind when he planned and led his October 1859 Raid on Harpers Ferry, what happened during the raid, and finally, consider what impact, if any, that raid had on the nation and his efforts to end slavery.  

Student Objectives: Students will:

  • See how history is a continuum, a series of events, in which one event – in this case, John Brown’s Raid – can affect another, and that those other events, can affect future actions.
  • Understand the reasons John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as the objective for his raid.
  • Discover what happened during the raid.
  • Consider the results of the raid: was Brown really “crazy,” or did his raid actually help lead us into a civil war, a conflict that eventually brought about the end of slavery?
  • Finally, allow the students to decide whether or not they would have joined Brown’s band, had they been alive and been asked.


In Incident at Harpers Ferry: John Brown’s Raid, 1859! Students will learn why John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as the objective for his October 1859 raid, an event that was to be the beginning of the end of slavery in the U.S.  They will also discover what happened during and after the raid, and have the opportunity to debate the question: Would you have joined John Brown’s raiders?   Finally, students will consider whether or not they feel John Brown’s Raid, as well as his trial and execution, had any impact on the nation, and helped lead our country into a civil war, a conflict which would eventually end the institution of slavery.

Our Incident at Harpers Ferry unit is divided into two lesson plans, each taking about 30-35 minutes to complete, and targeted mainly at grades five through eight. A class needn’t complete both lessons, although it is highly recommended, as the second lessons builds off of the first. 


  • Readers' Theater scripts
  • Character descriptions
  • Images of John Brown's Raiders
  • Fates of all of the characters



1) Download the script (the Reader’s Theater).


2) Download the images of John Brown’s 21 raiders.


3) Download the list of Brown’s raiders, and his words to them the day the raid began.


4) Download the brief descriptions of all the raiders, Harpers Ferry civilians, U.S. soldiers, and others. These descriptions tell a bit about those individuals up to the point the raid began.


5) Download the fates of all the characters.



First, if you covered Lesson One of this unit, and assigned some homework, go over that assignment.


Briefly review what the students remember of your discussion of John Brown’s life, up to 1859. See if there are any questions. Now tell the students they are going to take part in a Readers’ Theater, in which all of them will have at least one part. But first, they need to understand what John Brown wanted to do, and why he would plan and execute a raid on Harpers Ferry.


For this portion, it would help to have either discussed Harpers Ferry beforehand, or to have given the students an assignment asking them to find out a little about this river town and what was made there. If you’ve done this, and have talked a little about the location of Harpers Ferry, and the students understand that in Harpers Ferry there were two weapons factories making guns for the U.S. government, you can now ask why they think Brown chose the town as his objective.


If you have the time, divide the class into smaller groups and ask them to think of why Brown chose Harpers Ferry as the objective for his raid, or you can do this as an entire class.  The reasons: Brown planned to briefly take over the town and arm the slaves with guns from the two arsenal buildings there (the arsenals were where they stored the weapons made; the armory was where they made the weapons). However, because slaves didn’t know how to use guns (ask the students why this was), he had had nearly 1,000 pikes made, planning to use these weapons to arm the slaves who rose up to join his ranks; in time, he planned to teach the slaves who joined him how to use the guns.  Harpers Ferry was somewhat isolated, connected with the outside world primarily by rail, but still somewhat remote. Next, the town lay less than 40 miles from the “free” state of Pennsylvania, so he assumed if things did not go well, he and his raiders could escape and flee south. Finally, the mountains there, extending all the way south into Georgia, would have provided both an ideal avenue into the south, and hiding area. Power point images of Harpers Ferry and the surrounding area would help during this discussion.


Once you’ve discussed the reasons Brown chose Harpers Ferry as his objective, hand out all of the character descriptions for the Readers’ Theater. You may want the class to determine who should portray John Brown. Make sure you look through the script beforehand, because there are over 60 character descriptions, but only 20 of them have parts in the Readers’ Theater (there are also parts for nine narrators). The descriptions of all the raiders, civilians, soldiers, and other can be downloaded here.



Having handed out all of the character descriptions, have your “John Brown” come forward. He/she now read out the names of his 21 raiders, and as he/she does so, hand out the images of those men. You can download all of the images here. Have the students share which characters they are with other students. After calling out the names of the raiders and giving those students pictures of “themselves,” have “John Brown” read the words the real Brown said to his men before they all set out on the raid. Ask someone to “translate” those words, and put them into 21st century English.



Now you’re ready for the Readers’ Theater! Hand out the scripts and read the names of those characters who have parts in the play (there are 20 of them), and having done that, ask for volunteers to serve as the nine narrators (they should be students who don’t already have parts, although this will depend on how many students you have in your class).



Before starting, ask them how they should read when “performing,” go over the sound effects (teachers’ option to use or not use, as the teacher sees fit!), then, when everyone is ready, start!



The Readers’ Theater should only take about 15 – 20 minutes to complete, so when done, assuming you still have time, first ask the students if they have any questions about what they read, or what happened. Then hand out the “fates” of all the characters; these “fates” can be downloaded here. Have the students share their fates with others.



Next, ask the students what they think about what Brown did. Do they agree that Brown used the right methods? Why or why not? 



Now it’s time to run a short debate, if you have the time. Ask the students to imagine that it is 1859, you are against slavery, and you’ve been asked by John Brown to join his raiding party. What would they have said? Yes? No? Maybe? Give them a moment to decide, then divide your class into those three groups, and assign a few group “leaders” to organize the group and come up with THREE reasons for their decision. Give the groups five minutes, at most, to develop their three reasons for whatever decision they’ve made, then gather them back together and run a short debate.


Finally, if time allows, ask the students if they think Brown’s raid had an impact.  Seventeen of the raiders were either killed during the raid, or hanged later (including Brown); was the raid “successful”? Your students will most likely not know of the impact Brown’s raid, his words, and finally, his execution, but they were considerable: many, but certainly not all, in the North were moved by Brown’s actions, his words during the trial, and of course, by his willingness to give up his life for something he strongly believe in. In the South, there was general outrage, as many Southerners saw this as a blatant attempt to start a slave uprising, something Southerners feared more than anything. As a result, more militia groups were formed, primarily to be on the lookout for more “John Browns,” Southerners imposed more restrictions on slaves and free blacks (who numbered something over 60,000 in the South), and many started speaking even louder about SECESSION.  The case can be made that John Brown’s Raid indirectly led to the split of the Democratic Party at its May 1860 Presidential Nomination, thus practically assuring the election of the Republican candidate, who was, of course, Abraham Lincoln.  


  1. The students can be assessed by the amount of enthusiasm, cooperation they display during the class, whether it’s how much they put into the class as a whole, playing their part during the Readers’ Theater, in the follow-up debate, or any of the class activities.
  2.  As a possible concluding homework assignment, perhaps have the students write a letter as if they are pretending to be one of their Readers’ Theater characters (only writing as a Raider, if their Raider escaped the raid). 
  3. If you weren’t able to complete all of the steps above, another option might be to ask the students to do some on-line research, and see if they can find two or three results of John Brown’s Raid. 
  4.  Finally, if you have completed both lessons, or even added a third, prepare an “Assessment Sheet” – call what you want (“Grading Sheet,” etc.), listing all of the activities, homework assignments, everything that you did while moving through this unit. Grade the students on everything, from how they worked with each other, how well they did on any homework assignments given, to how they did during the Readers’ Theater, and so on. In this manner, all of your students will potentially receive fine marks, as the lessons touch on all of the many learning styles.

Park Connections

Harpers Ferry has a rich history, with six major themes, including Natural Heritage, Transportation, Industry, the Civil War, Afro-American History, and of course, John Brown. As part of its emphasis on John Brown, the park offers an exceptionally well-designed museum dedicated to the story of John Brown, the Raid, and the results. 


Option One – Have the students write a one-act play, taking the John Brown story a bit further: some options include the trial of Brown; or the country’s – and the world’s – reactions to the Raid.


Option Two – Move from these lessons to a project on the Causes of the Civil War. Have all of the students pick a famous character who had either something to do with events leading up to the war, such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Dred Scott, Roger Taney, and so on, or someone who was important during the war, such as Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and so on. Make sure you have half portraying Northerners, and half Southerners. The students will then do some research on their characters, and as a team, work on compelling arguments for a North versus South debate, during which they will attempt to persuade a three-person jury that their side is right; the jury can be made up of other teachers/administrators who are available for however class periods it will take to run the debate. If possible, video-tape the debate, so your students can watch it later. When the debate starts, make sure the students dress up as their characters. You can also take this project a step further, by moving into one on the Civil War.


Option Three --  Show that portion of Ken Burns’s The Civil War that deals with the John Brown’s Raid and its ramifications.


Additional Resources

  • John Brown's Raid, National Park Service History Series, Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2009


John Brown, abolitionists, armory, arsenal, pike, militia